“A Look at the Historical Context of Rothko’s Untitled 1953”
In the midst of the early 1950s and the Abstract Expressionist movement, Mark Rothko began creating his famous color field paintings. The cultural and social impacts of the horrors brought about by World War II, are a direct link to the evolution of these paintings, specifically, Rothko’s Untitled 1953. This painting speaks to its’ historical context through minimalist content, non- pictorial forms and purpose of scale; which all serve to communicate the feelings and emotions Rothko wished the viewer to experience. Through its power, this emotional impact was meant to unburden the viewer from their own historical context and create a truly reflective experience.
In the late 1940s, as the Abstract Expressionist movement was gaining ground, America was still recovering from the social and economic impact of World War II. The artists of the time, found themselves searching for ways to respond to such an uncertain climate.[i] The abstract expressionist movement was a translation of the artists response. One of the results of the response was minimalist content. It was utilized by Rothko, in Untitled 1953, as a tool to mediate an emotional experience from the painting to the viewer.
Untitled 1953 is a large 76 ½ inch by 67 ½ inch canvas. It is comprised of two large color planes with a small, ragged, stripe of color along the bottom edge. The top color plane is a radiant magenta that seems to float atop the bottom, black, color plane. The edges of the two color planes and the bottom colored stripe, are messy and blurred. This handling of the edges creates a floating dreamlike effect throughout the canvas. It also makes the planes seem to continually move and cycle; with one receding while the other moves forward. Upon even closer inspection, the edges of the color planes reveal a whole new array of “hidden” colors. Oranges, indigos, violets and grays are revealed. These new colors seem to come from within the large planes themselves; thus giving the viewer a tiny glimpse into Rothko’s painting process as well as being a testament to the exact experience that he wanted the viewer to grasp. In this revelation, they communicate a transcendental experience happening within the canvas itself, translating to the viewer all the power and emotion that Rothko intended it to give.
The magenta color plane reveals specks of indigo and violet that burst from behind, in a revelation type feeling of emotion. This revelation translates to the time in which it was created. People struggled to make sense of what was happening around them and their feelings were violently expressed or quietly suppressed, depending on their condition. This painting serves to translate these inner junctions of emotion and express Rothko’s feelings as well as giving the viewer a chance to fully absorb and experience their feelings in its presence. The magenta plane meets the black plane toward the upper half of the canvas, giving the illusion that the black is slowly engulfing the magenta. Despite the illusion of engulfment, this meeting is producing a re- birth of new color that translates to a re-birth of feeling and re-connection of emotion. New pieces of indigo and orange are revealed, showing that rather than swallowing the magenta, the black plane helps it heal and re-connect with its context and position.
This reconnecting with position and context is the same within the painting as within the viewer. The viewer is given an opportunity for their own unique experience. The paintings connection is further revealed through the existence of the bottom orange stripe. It speaks to a new bright connection that is pushing the top two forms ever upward. It brings a sense of heightened awareness to the viewer thus supporting the aspects of direct communication that Rothko wanted to convey.
The painting speaks of a time when there was no longer the naivety of a peaceful world. By using such large flat forms Rothko meant to destroy any illusion left and reveal only the truth.[ii] These truths and feelings are addressed through the absence of pictorial imagery. Rather than using pictorial imagery or any aspects of realism, Rothko gives the viewer the opportunity to create their own imagery of feeling and emotion. Some of the feelings created are related to the colors themselves. The central location of the largest black form constitutes a feeling of smallness and insignificance from the viewer in relation to the painting, as well as the viewer’s relation to the historical time and its events. While the top portion of reddish magenta is a growth, learning from, or an overcoming of such events. The bottom ridge of orange constitutes another period of emotional growth or alludes to historical chances and moments that are slipping away.
Through these non-pictorial color planes, Rothko creates a minimalist experience, thus breaking down any and all complexities of the past and allowing the viewer to partake in a singular emotional relationship between the painting and themselves. He observed,
"I’m not an abstractionist…I’m not interested in relationships of color or forms or anything else… I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions- tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on- and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows I communicate those basic human emotions… The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you…are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!"[iii]
While he was not interested in the surface relation of the color forms themselves, this quotation shows that he was interested in the emotion. It is the relation of the color that translates to the emotion and the experience communicated to the viewer.
Communicating these basic human emotions by excluding concrete pictorial imagery such as figure and line, Untitled 1953 allows the viewer to be fully enveloped in an emotional experience; thus creating a disrupted connection from any past, present or future circumstances. This causes the viewer to live in that precise moment in time. “Rothko managed to intensify and make immediate an impersonal emotional embrace of human origins and fate. Like his colleagues, he transfigured the forms and emotions of tragedy into those of melodramas, as he surrounded the viewer with a pictorial environment, form, and theater of emotion”[iv] In this way, the painting speaks specifically to its historical context. The bold, yet simplified square forms give the viewer a way to detach from their surroundings and have a brand new emotional experience.
The size of Untitled 1953 is also a primary factor in Rothko’s quest to relate to the historical context of the times as well as create an emotional experience to the viewer. Through the size of his paintings Rothko created the feeling that the viewer was actually inside the painting thus creating a state of spiritual communion between the two.[v] It is this participation that translates Rothko’s direct response to the historical times and his effort to put the viewer into their own unique emotional connection with the art work. “It is here that Rothko’s work transcends both time and space.”[vi] In close proximity to a giant work like Untitled 1953, the viewers’ repressed emotional turmoil can be channeled into a direct relationship with the painting, thus creating a transcendental experience.
Through minimalist content, non-pictorial forms and purpose of scale Rothko’s painting, Untitled 1953 successfully speaks to its historical context. The work was created during a time of great angst and uncertainty. These feelings were transmitted through the works content creating a two-way communication to the viewer. A spiritual communication is created by the large scale giving the viewer the feeling of actually being inside the work. The non pictorial forms communicate a unique message that causes a continual and timeless interaction with the viewer.
[i]. Encyclopedia of Irish and World Art: Timeline for History of Western Art. Abstract Expressionsim. http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/history-of-art/abstract-expressionism.htm (accessed October 8, 2010)
[ii] National Gallery of Art. Mark Rothko. http://www.nga.gov/feature/rothko/abstraction1.shtm (accessed October 8, 2010)
[iii] Quoted in Stephen, Polcari, “Mark Rothko:Heritage, Environment and Tradition,” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 2, no. 2 (1988): 58 , http://www.jstor.org/stable/3108950.
[iv] Stephen, Polcari, “Mark Rothko: Heritage, Environment and Tradition.” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 2, no. 2 (1988): 59, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3108950
[v] Eva, Gyetvai, “Safe Landings: Pollock and Rothko,”.Americana-E-Journal of American Studies in Hungary 4, no. 2 (2008) : no pages listed, http://americanaejournal.hu/vol4no2/gyetvai .
[vi] Amber Kelsey, “ The Color of Transcendence,”The Culture Issue, (no issue/vol) (2005): 3, http://www.nyu.edu/pubs/anamesa/archive/fall 2005 culture/02 kelsey.pdf.
Encyclopedia of Irish and World Art: Timeline for History of Western Art. Abstract
Expressionism. http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/history-of-art/abstract-expressionism.htm. (accessed October 8, 2010).
Gyetvai, Eva. “Safe Landings: Pollock and Rothko.” Americana-E-Journal of American
Studies in Hungary 4, no. 2 (2008): no pages listed. http://americanaejournal.hu/
Kelsey, Amber. “The Color of Transcendence.” The Culture Issue, (no issue/vol/) (2005):
National Gallery of Art. Mark Rothko. http://www.nga.gov/feature/rothko/classic6.shtm.
(accessed October 8, 2010).
Polcari, Stephen. “Mark Rothko: Heritage, Environment and Tradition.” Smithsonian
Studies in American Art 2, no. 2 (1988): 32-63. http://www.jstor.org/stable/
My name is Kristin Bradley. I am a photographer, designer, writer, avid reader, mother and constant artistic dabbler. This blog contains samples of my writing.